“Many people believe, as I do, that behind the legends of King Arthur as we know them today, there stands a real man. No king in shining armour, no Round Table, no fairy-tale palace at Camelot, but a Roman-British war leader, who when the dark tide of the barbarians came flooding in, did all that a great leader could do to hold them back and save something of civilisation. In The Lantern Bearers and Sword At Sunset, I have written about this war leader, trying to get back through the hero-tale and the high romance to the real man and the world he lived in.
But if the hero-tale had never grown up, and gathered to itself the mass of Celtic myth and folklore and the medieval splendours that we know now as the legends of King Arthur, we should have lost something beautiful and mysterious and magical out of our heritage.”
This trilogy has all the beautiful, mysterious and magical stories about King Arthur told by a wonderful storyteller (minstrel as she called herself in that same introduction to the first volume). Sutcliff is known for her books of historical fiction, and her passion was for the early history of Roman Britain. She is the perfect storyteller to introduce “children from 8 to 88” to these legends.
I have alway loved the King Arthur stories, and I enjoyed each of these books and recommend them highly. The first volume, The Sword and the Circle, focuses on the more familiar stories of Arthur, his birth, how he got his sword, Excalibur, his marriage to Guenever, the fellowship of the Round Table. We are also told stories of Sir Lancelot and Elaine, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Tristan and Iseult, and Geraint and Enid. The book ends with the coming of Percival. Sutcliff brings them all to life with her rich detail and description.
The second book, The Light Beyond the Forest, is about the quest for the Holy Grail. I was not as familiar with all of these stories as I was with the beginning stories of the legend, so I found them fascinating. In the beginning of this volume, Rosemary Sutcliff tells her readers:
“In reading The Light Beyond the Forest try to remember, as I have done all the time I was writing it, the shadows and the half-lights and the echoes behind.”
This set of stories is full of shadows, half-lights and echoes. Things are changing, tragedy is set in motion, and there’s an air of melancholy as these stories progress.
The final book in the trilogy is call The Road to Camlann, and is a moving account of King Arthur’s final days and the events leading to the final battle of the Knights of the Round Table at Camlann. There is a lot of darkness in these stories, and I found many of them to be haunting. As Lancelot said to King Arthur at one point, “We shall have made such a blaze that men will remember us on the other side of the dark.”
If you haven’t read any of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, you have a lot to look forward to. One Canadian blogger called her his “J.K. Rowling,” because when he was growing up he waited for her books to come out, one by one, just like we wait for the Harry Potter books today. Sutcliff was a prolific writer, with over 50 books published. My husband and I both loved listening to the audio version of her book The Shining Company, a story set in 600 A.D. in northern Britain. Young Prosper becomes a shield bearer with the Companions, an army made up of 300 younger sons of minor kings and trained to act as one fighting brotherhood against the invading Saxons. It’s an incredible story based on an old epic poem, The Gododden, and was a riveting tale.
You should also read some more about Rosemary Sutcliff herself, because she was an amazing person. She suffered from Still’s Disease, a form of juvenile arthritis, and spent most of her life confined to a wheel chair. Sandra Garside-Neville wrote an excellent article on her life and writings. I also recommend Sutcliff’s own lovely memoir called Blue Remembered Hills.
This trilogy is a wonderful, very readable, introduction to the legends of King Arthur, and they make great family read-alouds. I read them for Carl V’s Once Upon a Time reading challenge, and although I read them as 3 separate books, they are also available in one volume.